hiawatha bray

Hiawatha Bray: Startups’ useful and useless new gadgets on display

SmartyPans is a modern day cooking system that computes and tracks nutritional data of home cooked meals in real time.
SmartyPans is a modern day cooking system that computes and tracks nutritional data of home cooked meals in real time.

LAS VEGAS — At the annual International CES trade show, the world’s leading consumer electronics firms rent giant display booths at the Las Vegas Convention Center. It’s a grand, gaudy scene, but not all that interesting. So trade show veterans quickly head over to the Sands Exposition Center, in search of some real action.

The Sands is where startups hang out. Some of these tiny outfits have come up with big innovations, while others have found remarkably creative new ways to waste their investors’ money. Even CES veterans find it hard to know which is which.

It seems safe to call the Aroma Care device a long shot. This $100 Internet-connected air freshener uses color-coded cartridges, each with a relaxing or enticing aroma. A user can have his house smelling like a rose before he walks through the door, by using his smartphone to activate the AromaCare in advance.


The French company Aroma Therapeutics hopes to raise $75,000 on Kickstarter. It’s possible most people would rather invest in a few cans of Glade.

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From China comes the deliciously-named Crazybaby, and it’s a visually enthralling speaker system.

The $329 system includes a high-end speaker and brawny subwoofer. But the tweeter keeps its distance, literally hovering over the subwoofer that’s held aloft by the same kind of magnetic levitation used in high-speed Chinese railroad trains; with a finger, you can set it to whirling above its base like a 1950s flying saucer.

John M. Blodgett for the Boston Globe
Rob Merret of Stockholm, Sweden pedaled though a virtual reality world.

A Crazybaby spokeswoman said the floating tweeter delivers cleaner, crisper sound because it touches nothing but air. Amid the racket of CES, there was no way of testing the claim.

From Sunnyvale, Calif., comes a new way to count calories — letting your frying pan do it. Smartypans is an intelligent cooking device that precisely weighs the amount of food you put in it. Its built-in Bluetooth chip relays the information to a smartphone or tablet.


The Smartypans app also lets the chef identify each ingredient as it goes into the pan. Type in “olive oil,” then “broccoli” next, “tomatoes,” and so forth. Each time you add an ingredient, Smartypans weighs it, and calculates how many calories it contains. When the food’s done, Smartypans will know how many calories are contained in each serving.

It seems a roundabout approach to weight loss, but the company’s technical creativity is admirable. Smartypans will launch an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign Jan. 18.

Several of this year’s innovations have roots in Massachusetts.

A Foxborough company called Skreens has created a box that can cram multiple images onto a single TV screen.

A $450 box will let you cram up to five video sources plus a Web browser onto the screen, so you can run an Xbox game, watch a DVD movie, see how the Patriots are doing in the playoffs, and read the latest CNN headlines all at once. And the Skreens app lets the user slide these images all over the screen, making them bigger or smaller or even semitransparent so you can overlay them on one another.


Perhaps the most exhilarating — and exhausting — gadget comes from Cambridge-based Virzoom Inc. The company has synchronized a Chinese-made stationary bike with custom-made virtual reality software, to create a system that turns physical fitness into an immersive videogame.

Inside the virtual reality goggles, you’re a Western sheriff on horseback, riding after a band of outlaws. Or you’re a Formula One driver speeding around a racetrack. Or you’re riding the mythical winged horse Pegasus.

It’s total visual saturation as you speed through a three-dimensional world; the faster you pedal, the faster you go or the higher you fly. Lean left or right, and watch the 3-D landscape rotate around you.

Cofounder Eric Malafeew, a veteran of Harmonix Music Systems Inc., creators of the million-selling “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band” games, said that Virzoom is so captivating that people forget they’re exercising. That’s debatable; a few minutes of Virzoom left my head spinning and legs aching. But it was the good kind of ache.

Virzoom is taking $199 preorders for the first 300 of its bikes and software, for delivery when the VR headsets start shipping.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at